Those casually browsing Twitter in the afternoon of November 14 may have become privy to news of the IDF’s largest operation in Gaza since 2009 before anyone else. At 4:17 p.m., IDF Spokesperson Avital Leibovich, tweeted:
Shortly thereafter, the IDF’s English Twitter account posted “The first target, hit minutes ago, was Ahmed Al-Jabari, head of the #Hamas military wing.” The emailed press release with the same information did not arrive in The Jerusalem Post’s inbox until 8 minutes later.
It wasn’t that the army purposely broke the news on Twitter; an IDF Spokesman explained that they hit the send key on the announcement over its various media platforms at the same time. Rather, large email distribution systems take time to deliver, effectively making instantaneous Twitter the platform that broke the story.
Within minutes of the original Tweet, the IDF was updating its blog, Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts with explanations of the operational goals, charts, maps, videos, talking points and updates. For the first time, a major IDF operation was being live-Tweeted.
“The truth is, the IDF has always been really active on social media,” said Marina Boykis, a digital manager at the social media agency Blink who served on the IDF’s new media desk from 2011-2012. “This is just the first serious clash that they’re Tweeting.”
During the IDF’s last major Gaza operation, 2008-2009’s Cast Lead, its social media presence was practically non-existent. As accusations and condemnations of the attacks rolled in from around the world, the spokesman’s unit realized it could effectively make its case by releasing videos of its operations, demonstrating the difficulty of hitting military targets embedded in civilian areas. When clips uploaded to its newly created YouTube channel [youtube.com/idfnadesk] gained traction, it realized the potential of new media, and began expanding at an exponential pace, growing nearly tenfold in just a few years.
“I think that the IDF realizes that all the social media platforms are important for conveying information to the general public, and that’s always been a problem for them,” said Boykis.
In the midst of the 2010 Mavi Marmara Flotilla crisis, the IDF launched its English Twitter account, which today boasts some 97,500 followers, as a new avenue for making its case. Today, its media arsenal also includes a website, blog, Facebook page [facebook.com/idfonline] and Flickr [flickr.com/photos/idfonline], plus parallel accounts in Hebrew, English, French, Russian and Arabic.
The latest bout of Tweeting has proved a boon to the IDF and its supporters, who post and re-post its latest facts and figures to their own accounts, re-Tweeting messages justifying the military actions, maps showing areas susceptible to rocket attacks and satellite images demonstrating the proximity of weapons caches in Gaza to civilian centers. The IDF also chest-thumps, with warnings to Hamas operatives and a poster declaring Jabari “eliminated.”
In cyberspace, however, everyone has a platform. Hamas, too, has a Twitter account in English with some 9,200 followers, where it reports on the other side of the conflict. In addition to publishing its own videos of, for example, successful rocket launches, it also updates Gazan death tolls and boasted of its military accomplishments, carefully explaining that its rockets were aimed at various “military bases,” and repeatedly bluffing that that’s where their rockets land.
While the idea that the wealth of information might lead to dialogue or a better understanding of the other side’s positions is tempting, that seldom seems to be the case. “I don’t think that Twitter is the platform for people to engage in a true dialogue, like if they were sitting face-to-face,” said Boykis. “True dialogue needs to happen between Israel and legitimate representative of the Palestinian Authority, and not terrorists sitting in their bunkers in Gaza.”
Indeed, the open nature of social media sites like Twitter has led to some unusual interactions. Hamas actually responded to an IDF Tweet recommending “that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” with their own warning: “@IDFSpokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”
Beyond direct confrontation and updates from official sources, Twitter’s “trending list” also serves to update people on the latest events. Within minutes of Thursday’s siren in Tel Aviv, the city’s name was trending, as thousands of people Tweeted at once on the alarming escalation.
In the United States, a mock conservative group called The People’s Cube started a joke hashtag, #HamasBumperStickers, which made its way to the top of the trending list alongside derisive comments aimed at the terrorist group. “Shiite happens,” read one. “Kids blow up so fast these days!” read another. “Honk If You're About to be Taken Out by an Israeli Air to Surface Missile,” read a third.
Not everyone found it funny. One Tweeter wrote: “So disgusted that something like #HamasBumperStickers is trending, and not #PrayForGaza."
Public diplomacy, it seems, still has a long way to go.